A Much Needed Conversation on Islamophobia and Muslim Women

Two weeks ago, headlines were rocked by the gruesome murders of Syrian-American Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her younger sister, Razan, 19, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were gunned down by neighbor Craig Hicks, who is currently in custody on first degree murder charges and awaiting trial. He has referenced “parking dispute” as the reason for his offense, a motive that has been rightfully condemned for its absurdity.

This tragedy has generated a much needed introspective conversation about Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and how it bodes devastating real-life effects for those on the wrong side of prejudice. Muslims have suffered an alienating form of discrimination after 9/11, with a full spy operative on Islamic centers all over the nation, phone lines tapped, media pundits and news outlets debating on how “American” (read: assimilated) Muslims are, and if Islam, in its very ideological core, is compatible with the Western world. All this in the name of the safety and preservation of an ideal America. Statistics and facts on the mechanisms of violence in the US however, don’t support such a national hysteria. Muslims continue to be underrepresented in demographics relating to violence and in fact, almost 90% of identifiable mass shooters have been White men, predominantly of a Christian background. Regardless of readily abundant information which contests a widely accepted mistruth, Muslims are still coded as unruly and irredeemable, an existential danger to be tackled.

Mohammad Abu Salha, Yusor and Razan’s father stated that although interactions between the Hicks’ household were lukewarm at best, it wasn’t until Yusor moved in after she and Deah wed that the neighbor begin to display frequent bouts of frighteningly aggressive behavior. Yusor expressed discomfort with the man’s approaches towards her, claiming he harassed her prior. Due to Deah’s relative white passing nature, especially in comparison to his hijab observing wife and sister-in-law, he was able to navigate much of the overt Islamophobia that ultimately resulted in these killings.

This reinforces a reality that Muslim women have detailed over the past decade. Hijab wearing women are more physically distinguishable, thus particularly vulnerable over their male counterparts in experiencing Islamophobic sentiments, ranging from obscure microaggressions to full on assault. In an unfortunate irony mainstream feminists have in the past, and currently espouse Islamophobic sentiments, whether it’s Laci Green misquoting Quranic verses to expose textual misogyny or FEMEN caricaturing Islamic traditions and attire to promote a demonization of religious customs, in the name of women’s liberation. For all intents and purposes, it is critical to emphasize Islam’s relative flexibility and due to this, it has been adaptable to time, space and politics. To highlight a singular interpretation and embodiment of Islam is not only ahistorical, but in our current political climate, it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Though Muslim men continue to be maligned as exceptionally misogynistic, Islamophobia is not a gendered bigotry. Muslim women are on the forefront of violence and interrogation as well. Over the past several years since 2001, attacks on Muslims and even those perceived to be Muslim (mainly Sikhs and Hindus) have skyrocketed by at least 500%, though many acts of aggression don’t get investigated as hate crimes. In recent light of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo incident in France, the perennial juxtaposition of Islam and violence continue to splatter our headlines, again provoking this histrionic query of how safe and malleable the faith and its adherents are, deliberately focusing zero attention to the political conditions in which these groups and actions are born of out of in favor of an ill-regarded scapegoating of faith.

Muslim women, over the past several years have been at the end of an erroneous and exploitative relationship with the imperial gaze. Much Islamophobic rhetoric relies on a tired claim that misogyny in Muslim communities is particularly depraved and unique, thus incomparable to other demographics and worthy of speculation, detached from greater social and economical contexts. Such a fallacy, along with others relating to terrorism, have been cited as the cause of unjust expansionist initiatives, horrendous occupations and debilitating foreign policies. Muslim women all over drone stricken regions have been killed, left destitute, made to outlive their children and lost all their worldly possessions due to the Obama administrations enthusiastic increase of strikes. Since the invasion of Iraq, 1-2 million women have been made widowed either by direct imperial violence or occupation instigated sectarian conflict, which has undoubtedly jeopardized their economic security and psychological well being. Fallujah continues to witness staggering birth defects and child mortality due to US’ deposits of radioactive elements. In rural Yemen where drone strikes remain, PTSD ranges as high as 99% of child population. Needless to say, Muslim women, residing domestically and abroad, bear the brunt of various forms of damage due to post 9/11 initiatives.

In the past couple weeks since these brutal killings, there has been a disappointing, yet expected lack of fervor from those who claim to champion for the rights and safety of women. This says to Muslim women that our narratives are only relevant when used to proliferate Islamophobia, but not to combat it. Inconvenient truths surface now because feminists who have in the past utilized anti-Muslim jargon should critically examine their own complicity in a culture that instigates violent acts against marginalized subjects. Since the Tuesday of the attacks, I’ve had young women tell me in confidence that they aren’t comfortable wearing the hijab anymore and seriously contemplate taking it off, for fear of harassment, assault or worse. In no context should a woman be left with such a daunting choice. In any matter she is, it is a feminist urgency. There’s no justification besides personal bias that the endangerment of hijab observing women is not a top priority.

For as much discourse exists on the coercion of women into hijab, there should be the same resistance towards women being forced out of it. Muslim women are not a homogenous group. Our chronicles and our relationships with our faith, communities and experiences all vary. To project a understanding of our struggles and political trajectory does a severe misdeed to us all. Without this commitment to avoid pathologizing our narrative, mainstream feminism will only serve as an alternate form of marginalization to Muslim women.

Written by Yohanna Berhe.

Image from Algerie-focus.com